Apple (AAPL -0.14%) CEO Tim Cook on Friday left little doubt among shareholders that his company is working to address environmental concerns head-on -- whether they like it or not. Investors can either get on board with Apple's sustainability initiatives or, in his words, "[Y]ou should get out of this stock."
It was a bold proclamation from the leader of the world's largest company. It was a moment that MacObserver's Bryan Chaffin described as the "only time I can recall seeing Tim Cook angry." It was also, in my opinion, a huge step toward changing how businesses talk about their role in society.
Cook made his comment at Apple's annual shareholder meeting, which allows leadership to speak candidly about their goals and objectives and provides shareholders an opportunity to voice suggestions or concerns.
During the meeting, a representative from the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), an Apple shareholder and self-described conservative think tank, called for the tech giant to disclose more information about its participation in "certain trade associations and business organizations promoting the amorphous concept of environmental sustainability."
Taken at face value, the shareholder proposal seems harmless. Transparency, after all, is something most shareholders can get behind. We are avid fans here at The Motley Fool.
But, in this case, hardly anyone got behind the proposal. Only 2.95% of shareholders voted in favor, seemingly due to NCPPR's hard-line politics and profit-focused agenda.
A history of conflict
The conservative think tank believes climate change is not a man-made phenomenon, a point made clear on its website and blog. This puts the organization in opposition to former vice president Al Gore, a climate change activist and Apple board member. It also stands in contrast to a wide body of scientific evidence.
But putting the science of climate change aside, NCPPR's uncompromising position has led it to publicly clash with the private sector's efforts to simply reduce its environmental footprint. For instance, NCPPR attorney Justin Danhof, contested an effort by the Retail Industry Leaders Association to pre-empt government regulations by "reducing waste generation, energy and fuel usage, land-use footprint, and other environmental impacts." Danhof claimed the trade organization's actions meant it was cooperating with regulators "in a misguided effort to stop so-called climate change."
The Retail Industry Leaders Association efforts appeared counterproductive to NCPPR. They stood between retailers and their goal of maximizing profit, which seems to be a common theme in NCPPR's initiatives.
In a similar manner, NCPPR pressed General Electric to change its management approach. The organizations's proposal to GE stated, "[S]hareholders are concerned that the Company may make some decisions in which the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is a higher priority than maximizing financial returns."
On this issue, where environmental concerns could be emphasized more than profits, GE recently abided and changed its corporate social responsibility policy to reflect its intentions. At Apple, however, a significantly different scenario unfolded at the Friday shareholder meeting.
Apple's strong stance
According to multiple accounts, including NCPPR's, Danhof pressed Tim Cook on the issue of profitability from environmental investments. After some discussion on the specifics of the projects, NCPPR stated that Danhof asked whether "Cook was willing to amend Apple's corporate documents to indicate that the company would not pursue environmental initiatives that have some sort of reasonable return on investment."
MacObserver's Chaffin, who was reporting on the meeting, described Cook's response to this inquiry as follows:
What ensued was the only time I can recall seeing Tim Cook angry, and he categorically rejected the worldview behind the NCPPR's advocacy. He said that there are many things Apple does because they are right and just, and that a return on investment (ROI) was not the primary consideration on such issues.
"When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind," he said, "I don't consider the bloody ROI." He said that the same thing about environmental issues, worker safety, and other areas where Apple is a leader.
As evidenced by the use of "bloody" in his response -- the closest thing to public profanity I've ever seen from Mr. Cook -- it was clear that he was quite angry. His body language changed, his face contracted, and he spoke in rapid fire sentences compared to the usual metered and controlled way he speaks.
Cook was not pleased to have his capital allocation decisions questioned, but this wasn't the first time that NCPPR had been critical of Apple's motives and disclosures. Back in 2012, the think tank backed a proposal to force board member Gore to disclose an alleged conflict of interest relating to Apple's green energy efforts. This effort collected only 1.9% of shareholders' votes.
Though NCPPR has hardly backed down since, a response from Danhof on Friday could imply the organization is considering withdrawing its investment in Apple. In the press release titled "Tim Cook to Apple Investors: Drop Dead," Danhoff is quoted stating the following:
Here's the bottom line: Apple is as obsessed with the theory of so-called climate change as its board member Al Gore is. The company's CEO fervently wants investors who care more about return on investments than reducing CO2 emissions to no longer invest in Apple. Maybe they should take him up on that advice.
Based on Cook's words, losing investors who disagree with Apple's environmental efforts is a risk he's willing to take. As he put it in no uncertain terms, "If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock."
A stakeholder tug-of-war
It's unclear at this point whether Apple's relationship with NCPPR will unravel. However, it is quite clear Cook is considering many different stakeholders -- which include everything that interacts with a business -- and balancing all of their interests. His message could reverberate across other organizations.
Apple is the largest company in the world by market cap and owns the most valuable brand, according to Interbrand. What it stands for matters to investors and the public at large. When Apple's relationship with a stakeholder is scrutinized, as was the case with supplier Foxconn Technology Group, the company's response echoes widely.
In that instance, Apple last year increased surveillance of its supply chain by conducting 393 audits, up 72% from two years prior. It also improved transparency and worked to distance itself from conflict minerals. These actions garnered praise from even its fiercest critics.
Cook's recent actions signal that Apple views the environment as an important stakeholder alongside suppliers, employees, customers, and investors.
While shareholders' desires have often taken precedent over other stakeholders, this manner of running a business is losing steam. My colleague Brian Richards noted that shareholder-obsessed companies often become distracted from long-term business objectives. Former GE chief Jack Welch -- a Wall Street idol for decades -- has remarked that, "On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world." Likewise, organizations that embrace the ideals of conscious capitalism are redefining the purpose of business, which extends beyond profit-maximization.
To be sure, Apple doesn't seem to be turning its back on shareholders. Nor is the company stating outright that climate change is in fact caused by human activity.
Instead, like every other business leader in America, Cook is walking a delicate tightrope and trying to create a "win-win" outcome over the long run for stakeholders.
Warren Buffett has a pearl of wisdom for CEOs: You don't get the investors you want; you get the investors you deserve based on your actions. On Friday, Cook heeded that advice. He took a step to align investors with the values of his organization. His actions could send a highly influential message to the rest of the business world.